Have Democrats learned from their mistakes?

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I've been reluctant to speculate about what the next Congress will do, mainly because it's jumping the gun. We still don't know whether former Vice President Joe Biden's polling lead will hold up or if President Donald Trump will win a second term, and while the Democratic majority in the House seems safe, there are a wide range of possibilities in the Senate. 

However, I was on a panel Thursday about political scientist Seth Masket's terrific new book, "Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020," and it got me thinking about one potential outcome. Masket's book is about the Democratic nomination process in this cycle, especially in the "invisible primary" years between Trump's surprising win and the Iowa caucuses. His argument is that competing narratives of what went wrong in 2016 were central to what party actors chose to do in the 2020 cycle, and that this eventually produced an unusual focus on electability that helped propel Biden to victory. It's a must-read for political scientists interested in parties and elections, but also good fun for anyone interested in politics. 

Getting back to 2021: The discussion at one point turned to what a Biden administration would be like if Democrats won, and I think Masket's framework of learning within a party network is particularly helpful for thinking about it. That's because (oddly) both Democrats and Republicans think of the last period of unified government before Trump's victory, 2009-2010, as a success they'd want to repeat.

That's especially true for Republicans. In fact, for them, the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency and the first two years of Barack Obama's were triumphs to be emulated. In both cases, obstruction inside Congress and mobilization outside of Washington were seen as having harmed the president's popularity and produced major Republican landslides. 

Democrats agree that 1993-1994 were largely unsuccessful years. But for many of them, the 111th Congress in 2009-2010 was an enormous success, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform, a major economic stimulus bill and more. Yes, there were setbacks, including compromises in passing Obamacare that many Democrats regret. And yes, the party was clobbered at the polls in 2010. But Obama went on to win re-election, and most Democrats consider the things that did pass in that period historic achievements. 

I should point out that one of Masket's insights is that what's important for the political learning process is the stories that party actors believe — not whether those stories are true. We can argue all day about whether Republican strategy (and not, say, the economy) was responsible for their big 1994 and 2010 midterm gains. But what's important is that Republicans themselves believe it, and will act on it. 

The explanation of 2009-2010 is more contested on the Democratic side. Overall, many think it was successful, but I suspect various party actors believe it should've been more so, if only … and that's where we get to the contested part. If only they had fought harder. Or aimed for more. Or mobilized outside of Washington. Or ignored the budget deficit instead of trying to prove their fiscal responsibility. It's that last bit that I think the party really has moved on from; the rest, I'm not so sure. 

Of course, if Trump wins then we'll have to wait to test what if any changes the Democrats have made for their next chance at unified government. But if Democrats do win big in November, these are the kinds of questions — along with external circumstances and the political context created by the election — that may explain how they'll try to govern.

1. Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III on what we should expect on Election Day and after. Yup: It's important that we be prepared to wait for a full count, but much of the process will seem normal.

2. Melanye Price on injustice in Kentucky.

3. Dan Drezner on Trump's threat to democracy.

4. Jeffrey Young on Trump's nonexistent health-care plan.

5. Margot Sanger-Katz on Trump's record on pre-existing conditions. No, it's not what he says it it.

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox on the unusual recession.

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